Levinas, Adorno, and the Ethics of the Material Other

By Eric S. Nelson

Subjects: Philosophy, Ethics, Identity, Phenomenology, Continental Philosophy
Series: SUNY series in Contemporary French Thought
Paperback : 9781438480244, 480 pages, July 2021
Hardcover : 9781438480237, 480 pages, December 2020

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Table of contents


Introduction: On the Way to an Ethics of Material Others

Part I: After Nature: Ethics, Natural History, and Environmental Crisis

1. Toward a Critical Ecological Model of Natural History

2. Natural History, Nonidentity, and Ecological Crisis

3. Communicative Interaction or Natural History? Aesthetics, Ethics, and Nature

4. The Trouble with Life: Life-Philosophy, Antinaturalism, and Transcendence in Levinas

5. An Ethics of Nature at the End of Nature

Part II: Unsettling Religion: Suffering, Prophecy, and the Good

6. Religion, Suffering, and Damaged Life: Nietzsche, Marx, and Adorno

7. The Disturbance of the Ethical: Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Abraham's Binding of Isaac

8. Ethics between Religiosity and Secularity: Kierkegaard and Levinas

9. Prophetic Time, Materiality, and Dignity: Bloch and Levinas

10. Ethical Imperfectionism and the Sovereignty of Good: Levinas, Løgstrup, and Murdoch

Part III: Demanding Justice: Asymmetrical Ethics and Critical Social Theory

11. Equality, Justice, and Asymmetrical Ethics

12. The Pathologies of Freedom and the Promise of Autonomy

13. The Limits of Liberalism: Cosmopolitanism, Tolerance, and Asymmetrical Ethics

14. Recognition, Nonidentity, and the Contradictions of Liberalism

Epilogue: Nourishing Life, Unrestricted Solidarity, and the Good


A provocative examination of the consequences of Levinas’s and Adorno’s thought for contemporary ethics and political philosophy.


This book sets up a dialogue between Emmanuel Levinas and Theodor W. Adorno, using their thought to address contemporary environmental and social-political situations. Eric S. Nelson explores the "non-identity thinking" of Adorno and the "ethics of the Other" of Levinas with regard to three areas of concern: the ethical position of nature and "inhuman" material others such as environments and animals; the bonds and tensions between ethics and religion and the formation of the self through the dynamic of violence and liberation expressed in religious discourses; and the problematic uses and limitations of liberal and republican discourses of equality, liberty, tolerance, and their presupposition of the private individual self and autonomous subject. Thinking with and beyond Levinas and Adorno, this work examines the possibility of an anarchic hospitality and solidarity between material others and sensuous embodied life.

Eric S. Nelson is Professor of Philosophy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He is the coeditor (with John E. Drabinski) of Between Levinas and Heidegger, also published by SUNY Press, and the author of Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth-Century German Thought.


"…Levinas, Adorno and the Ethics of the Material Other is a dense text that deserves more than a single close reading. Compelling arguments and insights are found from beginning to end on a very wide range of topics related to the work of Levinas and Adorno." — ID: International Dialogue

"The worth of a book is a measure not only of what it says but also of the questions it raises for the reader to ponder. Nelson's work is one such book of important questions, a must-read for scholars and students of twentieth-century European philosophy and political theory in general." — Comparative Political Theory

"…Nelson has written an excellent work that offers novel and insightful points in environmental ethics, continental philosophy of religion and political philosophy. Scholars in these fields would find the work highly commendable because of its sensitivity to the nuances and tensions in Adorno and Levinas's philosophies, as well as to the core philosophical issues that underpin contemporary conditions." — Human Studies

"Eric S. Nelson's most recent work is timely, provocative and substantively novel, arguing for a connection between Levinas and Adorno that is seldom made … Nelson has produced a highly commendable, superb guide and introduction to continental political philosophy of history in a new key." — Symposium

"This is an extremely impressive, original, and thorough treatment of two key twentieth-century thinkers and their applicability to the most pressing social and political issues of our time." — Jeffrey A. Bernstein, author of Leo Strauss on the Borders of Judaism, Philosophy, and History

"This book is an excellent and timely contribution to political and environmental philosophy, located around a nuanced historical and philosophical approach to Levinas and Adorno. It will be of great interest to anyone concerned with these figures or with the current moment." — Martin Shuster, author of Autonomy after Auschwitz: Adorno, German Idealism, and Modernity